Veazie, Glenburn residents start ‘difficult-by-design’ school district withdrawal process

Posted Jan. 29, 2012, at 6:13 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2012, at 6:30 p.m.

GLENBURN, Maine — Residents in Glenburn and Veazie are in the early stages of attempting to withdraw from RSU 26, and already are finding it’s not a simple process.

During a Glenburn Town Council meeting Thursday, Jan. 26, councilors reviewed the language of a petition submitted by a committee of residents who want to see Glenburn pull itself from the school district.

The petition read: “We, the undersigned, being qualified voters of the Town of Glenburn, Maine, favor the withdrawal of Glenburn from Regional School Unit (RSU) #26 — RSU 26.”

On the advice of the town attorney, the council rejected the petition, because it didn’t follow the language recommended in state statute, which reads: “Do you favor filing a petition for withdrawal with the board of directors of regional school unit (name of regional school unit) and with the Commissioner of Education?”

The petition also should name a dollar amount that the town is allowed to spend for legal fees and other expenses associated with the withdrawal process.

John Higgins, an RSU 26 board member who is on the committee pushing for Glenburn to step out of the school district, told the Town Council he would rework the language and gather signatures a second time in an attempt to bring the withdrawal bid before voters.

In Veazie, Rob Tomlinson and four other residents have formed a committee to explore its options and have gathered petition signatures of their own.

The Veazie Town Council will discuss the school budget and the withdrawal petition with members of the school district’s board of directors and Superintendent Douglas Smith during a meeting set for 7 p.m. Monday at the Veazie Town Office.

Veazie and Glenburn residents, including members of the school district’s board, have complained that weighted voting on the board means their towns have little say in what happens in the district.

They also are paying the bulk of the $105,000 that Orono, Glenburn and Veazie will have to pay in order to fully close a $2 million budget gap the school district’s finance committee was tasked with closing in October of last year.

Glenburn’s share of the $105,349 would be $37,689. Veazie residents would pay $49,171, and Orono would contribute $18,489. Those shares are higher in Glenburn and Veazie because of increased tax valuations in the communities.

If Veazie and Glenburn succeed in their withdrawal bids, they can either join another school district or go their own course — a path that is allowed in statute, but a risky one that wouldn’t be advisable for most communities, according to Maine Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Jim Rier.

“If they choose to go off on their own, they’ll be faced with all the risks associated with the uncertainty of things like the number of special needs students in your schools,” Rier said.

Being a part of a school district gives you more alternatives if a school can’t meet a requirement or provide particular programs, he said.

Now that withdrawal from school districts is allowed under state law, Glenburn and Veazie are only two communities in a large pool that are considering withdrawal or starting the process.

Municipalities discussing withdrawal or starting the process include Andover, Frankfort, North Yarmouth, Athens, Kennebunkport, Richmond and Arundel.

The process requires the town that wants to leave to get a petition signed by 10 percent of the number of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election, put the question on a town warrant, have residents vote to go through the process, form a committee to negotiate with the district at large, make a plan on how to withdraw and put the plan to voters and get a two-thirds majority vote to approve that plan. The state education department then has to approve that plan.

Withdrawal is a difficult thing to do by design, according to Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

“You certainly don’t want districts joining and separating willy-nilly,” he said Friday.

Starks, a town of about 600 residents located midway between Madison and Farmington, completed the withdrawal process from RSU 59 on Jan. 10, with voters approving the exit by 85 percent. The town was allowed to start the withdrawal process before Jan. 1 because the schools in the original SAD were unchanged when they switched to an RSU, according to Connerty-Marin.

Now, Starks is beginning the process of joining neighboring RSU 9, a plan which residents would vote on in the spring.

The process went “perfectly” for the small school system, according to Ernest Hilton, a Starks lawyer who served as chairman on both the committee to withdraw from one school district and the committee to join the other.

Starks was displeased with the fact that Madison Area High School was named one of Maine’s 10 “failing schools” in 2010 by the state Department of Education. But in the school district just west, Starks saw a district with more Advanced Placement classes, higher graduation rates and better college attendance numbers, Hilton said.

Starks also found, even before starting its withdrawal petition drive, that it could drop about 3 mill rates in taxes by moving to RSU 9.

Hilton said Starks had a plan and concrete reasons why their withdrawal would benefit Starks’ schools and RSU 9 from the early stages of the process, which is important if a withdrawal committee wants its plan to be approved by the Department of Education.

Rier said the pushes to pull out of RSUs are “emotionally charged,” and that communities need to organize and gather their information and get their facts and figures in order before going too far in the process only to find that the commissioner has rejected their request because of a missed step or oversight.

“They’re all hearing the same thing from me,” Rier said Friday. “To take their time and understand the outcomes before they jump into the withdrawal process.”

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